The Multigen Realtime Theater appears in the Digital Pavilions area.
by John Dudley Miller
Have you ever seen the USS Monitor, the famous iron-clad naval vessel from the American Civil War? A symbol of the brother-against-brother fight that almost destroyed our Union of states, it's something every U.S. schoolchild should visit.
Trouble is, it sank off the coast of North Carolina in 1862, so no one now alive has ever seen it above water. But now the Monitor has been digitally rebuilt from its original blueprints by Andrew Shein and co-workers at Silicon Graphics, using Multigen's virtual reality (VR) technology. For the first time in more than a century you can not only see it, but also walk around it and even explore inside it.
This historical simulation makes you feel like you really are somewhere else because it's projected on a large semi-circular screen eight-and-a-half feet high and twenty-four-and-a-half feet across. It can accommodate an audience of twenty-five. "Standing inside of this, looking forward, you see nothing but the immersive environment," Lewis points out. "It's one solid piece of fabric."
Lewis sees the Monitor project as a prototype of a burgeoning new business for museums. "With the costs of this hardware coming down as rapidly as it is," he predicts, "you'll probably start to see historical institutions around the world having at their fingertips a number of these databases that they could then teach during any given day." In this new group-learning model he envisions, one person will "drive" around the site while everybody else talks about it and asks questions.
CyberCity Berlin, a tourist's guide to the present-day city, was created with Multigen by the German multimedia company Echtzeit. It's so much more detailed than traditional VR urban simulations that it includes many views inside buildings. "You're going to be able to travel through the entire city," Lewis continues, "figure out the sorts of things you can and want to do, go look at your hotel room, see what kinds of chairs are in your hotel room, and really get a feel for the city and some of the tremendous architecture. This is sort of an architect's dream for interactive, immersive experiences."
A similar dream for sculptors is the Freeform immersive sculpting and painting medium developed by Paul Mlyniec of Digital ArtForms in collaboration with Multigen. It allows sculptors and other artists to create virtual works of art by simply wearing motion-detecting gloves over their hands. That solves a big problem for artists trying to cross over into the computer world, because their skill is in creating with their hands, not in typing and clicking with a keyboard and mouse. "These artists . . . end up losing a lot of their talent along the way," Lewis explains, "because the tools that exist are not capable of helping them express" themselves. Because the glove system is so intuitive, artists usually learn it in ten to fifteen minutes.
Sculpting a virtual golf course with Freeform
The gloves can also be used to train people how to do a complicated job with many steps. In a sequential training demonstration at the Multigen exhibition booth, you can learn how to perform maintenance on a jet fighter plane. "It is very successful at getting the first seventy to eighty percent of knowledge transferred from the trainer to the trainee," Lewis claims. He thinks that's because "most people learn best by doing, by being immersed in a situation."